Reed Handley Reed Handley
Over the last decade, the path to entrepreneurship has become something of an obsession in the United States. Look no further than Eric Reis’s ‘The Lean Startup” and the rise in popularity of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and GoFundMe; there’s been an increasing focus on the role of big ideas in small business — and in service of small business.

Existing small businesses comprise 99 percent of all employer firms, employ nearly half of the workforce, and account for more than 60 percent of the private sector’s net new jobs in the US, according to a 2016 Babson College report. It’s no wonder that small businesses represent a huge opportunity for growth-stage and large-scale professional services and financial services companies to increase market share.

O'Dwyer's August '16 Financial PR/IR & Professional Services PR MagazineThis article is featured in O'Dwyer's Aug. '16 Financial PR/IR & Professional Services PR Magazine

However, just because growth in the U.S. small business sector is on the rise doesn’t mean the challenges that have historically plagued marketers trying to reach that segment have gone away. It’s a very broad, fragmented market, an expensive sector to service, and frankly, more difficult than ever to get the attention of a time-starved small business owner.

And that’s the crux of the issue, isn’t it? Given the breadth of industry verticals, geographical nuances, and the variety of pain points small businesses face at different stages of the business lifecycle (e.g., access to capital, hiring and employee benefits, regulatory environment, technology, work/life balance, succession planning and wealth management, etc.), it’s a mistake for financial services and professional services companies to treat small businesses as a homogenous segment.

As marketers and PR professionals, our job is to help clients think strategically about the small businesses they’re targeting and set our account teams up for success as they execute against the programs we sell. Here are tested rules-of-thumb to help accomplish both:

Segment, seriously

Financial and professional services companies can’t be all things to all people, even if their product or service is applicable to a universal pain point. Push clients to segment their audience by industry, geography, and stage of business. Is their product or service best suited for new companies, small businesses ready to grow, or those winding down? Then, tell real stories, including cautionary tales, of small businesses who’ve overcome hardships to achieve real personal or professional growth — or might have — as a result of using your client’s product or taking advantage of their service.

Get in the mindset of your client’s client

Once you’ve worked with your client to identify the right small business segment, dig deeper into their business and have them do the same. It’s not enough to understand the product or service; you must know your client’s small business customers and who those small businesses are trying to reach. Understand the nuances or specific industry issues facing small businesses, such as the need for retailers to keep up with omnichannel investments in retail, for example.

Emphasize benefits, not features

Marketers need to counsel their clients to dig deep and offer real stories about the impact of what they are selling. Too many financial services and professional services companies prioritize the product or service they’re trying to sell. For small business owners, it’s not the “what” that matters, but the “so what?” What’s the small business problem they’re trying to solve, and how will the product or service enable and empower the small business owner to be better?

Cultivate subject-matter experts

There are so many “subject-matter experts” who can’t actually speak the language of their small business customer. Identify someone internally who can “talk the talk.” If that person doesn’t exist, look to small business influencers who can reach and activate the target audience authentically.

Pull different levers

It’s important to remember that the media isn’t the sole means of influencing small business owners, particularly given the dwindling number of small business beat reporters. Help your client demonstrate their worth to small business owners by developing emotive content customized for specific small business segments, designing regional influencer programs that harness the power of social media to amplify content and marketing messages, and identifying the right partnership opportunities where a little strategic spend can have a high ROI.

Zoom in on local markets

Despite the growing trend of going global, small business is still inherently local. And publicity in local markets remains a consistent priority for financial services and professional services companies. The changing media landscape requires that clients have a true local connection or tie-in to the market they are pitching. If they don’t have it, figure out who does — whether it’s a happy customer, a local sales person, or a regional small business champion — and partner with them to get the message out. Start by identifying 3-5 markets to pursue as part of a pilot program and expand from there.

Zoom out with business data

If your client’s objective is to take the pulse of the small business economy through the lens of the product or service they provide, take inventory of proprietary data and identify trends that offer insights into specific small business segments. Layered on top of regular market indicators, like jobs reports, your client’s data can serve as a foundational tool to help paint a picture of the U.S. small business economy.

The right integrated marketing program will have a meaningful impact for your financial services and professional services clients — or any company, for that matter — and help move the needle with the small businesses they’re servicing. It starts with research to identify the white space for your client, harnessing business data and leveraging the right spokespeople to tell compelling stories that embody the brand’s differentiated point of view. Once that’s established, the focus needs to shift to creative campaigns bolstered by an array of ongoing activity, along with a healthy dose of realism about your client’s business goals, unique selling proposition, and what they can expect to accomplish based on the stories they’re able — and willing — to tell.

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Reed Handley is Account Director of Financial Services and Professional Services Practices at Bliss Integrated Communication.